Infusing religion into the Indian racism debate is problematic


The debate on identity manifests in interesting jolts. In recent times it appears to have shifted to engage what it means to be Indian in South Africa.


The path to a common and equal humanity necessitates an uncomfortable process where all apartheid identity markers are placed under due scrutiny.  In this season the conversation continues after the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)’s Julius Malema and Dali Mpofu weighed in on the debate. Malema and Mpofu essentially came to the defence of EFF Deputy President Floyd Shivambu, who a few weeks ago stirred a hornet’s nest when he dared to accuse deputy director general of the Treasury Ismail Momoniat, of undermining African leadership.

In the aftermath of the Shivambu comment, Malema was more scathing with his claim of “…the majority of Indians are racists… they see themselves [as] better than most of us. Even coloureds see themselves [as] better than blacks.”


Mpofu defended both Malema and Shivambu with these words: “If telling this truth will lose us votes from the Indian community or whichever community, so be it because we are not going to canvass for votes through sacrificing truth and principle on the altar of political convenience.” He also said Indians do not vote for black parties. With this, he confirmed what Malema said about Indians on June 16.


Retired Constitutional Court Judge Zak Yacoob, as early as April shared his mind on Indians. According to him, “Many Indians are racist, just as I believe that many Africans are also racist”.  Yacoob went further to state “However, from my personal interaction within the community, I can state that at least 90% of Indians that I come across are racist.”


In between concessions and accusations of racist attitudes from one group to the other, lies the subject of South Africa’s identity challenge. In this instance, the debate has shifted to that of an Indian identity. Apartheid’s Indian identity has remained reasonably protected in cultural claims whereas all other classifications have been outed for their racially loaded connotations. For some, the Indian identity debate was handled as a taboo due to its fragile minority size.


Unfortunately, most who responded to Shivambu, Malema and Mpofu in herd mentality sought to defend an Indian identity instead of engaging the problematic apartheid racial classifications, and a democratic era’s subsequent uncritical appropriation of the same. It seems the real debate must be centred on questioning the illogic of Shivambu acting out what I have termed his ‘post-apartheid African identity privilege’ as reaffirmed by the ANC’s “black in general and African in particular”.

It is also unfortunate that some who self-define in Indian identity while taking issue with the EFF leadership, are eerily silent in engaging Yacoob on his assertions. It is disingenuous to find Malema’s claims offensive when Yacoob is not challenged with the same verve. What Malema and Yacoob said, in a nutshell, is the same thing. It does not make it right or wrong, it is an experiential perception articulated by both from their vantage points on South Africa’s smallest population group. Nevertheless, we must welcome the various inputs since it confirms a society willing to engage the uncomfortable aspect of identity. In this instance it is an Indian identity.

I was particularly drawn to an open letter penned to the South African Indian Muslim Community by Dr Quaraysha Ismail Sooliman, a post-doctoral research fellow attached to the University of Pretoria Humanities / Mellon Foundation Public Intellectual Project.  Sooliman declares his support for the EFF. He, however, admits he is reconsidering his support for the EFF since the party leadership is not working for unity.


Surprisingly, Sooliman argues. Malema’s comments on Indians “should have been addressed to an Indian audience and he should have told Indians to their faces that these are the issues we find problematic with you”.


Sooliman does not explain his rationale for the need to have an exclusive Indian audience hear Malema. It is clear Indians, the length and breadth of SA, have heard Malema making his claims. We are not sure why Sooliman felt that Indians being accused of racism warranted being addressed behind closed doors between Malema and the community he accuses. Sooliman does not tell us if he made the same claim of Yacoob. After all, the subject of Indian identity as one of the apartheid racial classifications has a direct bearing on a much broader conversation, particularly with a democratic era’s acceptance of those racial categorisations.

Sooliman then makes a startling point, when he asserts: ‘Muslims must take note of the comments and sentiments expressed by EFF leader Julius Malema and the response written by Dali Mpofu.”  He thus inadvertently takes the debate now to a religious identity platform. Sooliman does not tell his fellow Muslims to take note of what Yacoob said.

We may appreciate the overarching aim of Sooliman is to use morality to argue for an equality of humanity. He chooses to do so by extracting that morality from a Muslim faith prism. With this, he challenges his fellow Muslims to do better in recognising the reality of what it meant to be an Indian in an apartheid context.

Sooliman’s attachment of faith may be a natural response for some yet it is also problematic because he chooses to challenge Muslims instead of Indians in general. Granted, the letter is addressed to Indians who subscribe to the Islamic faith. It still remains a careless act to bring the subject of faith into the debate. A further problem is that anyone, from any one of the numerous apartheid racial categorisations may identify as Muslim. I would plead with Sooliman to resist the temptation of letting the debate stray into the precarious path of religion.

Addressing the subject of prejudice and even racism as a reality may not have any need of being channelled through a religious funnel. The danger of steering the debate along the tracks of religion may unnecessarily alienate people and cloud it for a religious debate, when it is not. One can make the case for or against any group as racist without having to resort to a religion-inspired moral diaphragm. In a world society where religion is often misunderstood and attacked, it does not help to drag religion into the debate.  Let the debate remain an Indian identity and not a religious identity debate.


On another score, Sooliman, also continues the uphold of the discredited enterprise of race when he asserts, “…the sad reality is that each race group considers itself inferior to the whites but superior to each other.”  With this claim, Sooliman confirms his own acceptance of race for a means to define identity. Sooliman does not tell us why he continues to believe in a multiplicity of races understood in white, black coloured or Indian, 70 years after eugenics was declared defunct.


He also does not question the ongoing existence of race in its social constructionism frame. If Sooliman wanted to underscore a common human identity, it seems it would have made sense to do so by questioning the prevalence of race in 2018, and more so as appropriated by the post-1994 democratic society, albeit in claims of seeking redress.

An interesting contribution to the debate that Sooliman brings is his categoric assertion on Indian identity with Mahatma Gandhi as a backdrop. He argues, “Gandhi was and is a problematic figure, not worthy of celebrating in a country where ethnic and colour difference was used to dehumanise people and strip them of their dignity.”   


I concur with Sooliman, the debate on who Gandhi and what he means in South Africa continues to be one of conflict and, at times, denial if not dishonesty. Gandhi is honoured by many in SA as a great humanitarian, and for some a liberation icon. However, Gandhi is also a very controversial figure for his known utterances on Africans. Associating him with his claims of non-violent struggle may, on the one hand, be regarded noble, but it does not exonerate Gandhi who had clear prejudiced and racist views on South African natives. The challenge for those who self-identify in Indian identity is to engage the complexity of the person of Gandhi, and to appreciate there is no uniform view of Gandhi as an Indian.

The case can be made that many in the South African Indian community are too willing to associate with Gandhi in an identity of being Indian, but do not want to share the racist connotations that go with that Gandhi association. His critique of Gandhi asks of self-identifying Indians to critically assess their association with a Gandhi.

As the debate on identity in South Africa unfolds, there appear no proverbial holy cows. South Africans are finding out that it is not so easy to claim identities of being African, coloured, Indian, white or black without having to concede what these stood for in their historical sense. They are equally challenged as to what those identities mean in democracy as borrowed from that chequered past. We are learning that apartheid’s identity labels that are wholly appropriated by democracy prove problematic on many fronts.


What remains challenging though, is framing any of apartheid’s identity classifications in a religious cloak.

Clyde Ramalaine

Political Commentator and Writer